Krampus (dir. Michael Dougherty)

Posted: December 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

I really wanted to like “Krampus”.  Even after I learned the film would be PG-13 and hew more toward the older, kid-friendly horror of “Gremlins” and not the X-Mas horror featured in the famous “Tales from the Crypt” episode “And All Through the House”, I hoped we’d get a nice mixture of horror and comedy to bring us back to the good ol’ 80s when horror/comedies could still be good and have a little edge to them.  Hell, at worst I was hoping we’d end up with the “Ghoulies” or one of those films that I devoured on HBO growing up, the kinds of films that bombed but thanks to being shown on pay cable a million times became cult classics.  The director of “Krampus”, Michael Dougherty is perhaps most well known for his anthology horror/comedy “Trick ‘r Treat”, which gained a cult following after being dumped direct-to-video after the studio kept it on the shelf for two years for reasons still not quite know, though perhaps questions as to how to market an anthology nowadays had something to do with it.  Like most anthologies, that film was hit-or-miss, but it showed enough potential to hope that this follow-up would deliver in the ways that “Trick ‘r Treat” fell short.


Sadly, “Krampus” has wound up being a visually interesting film with a fundamentally weak script.  The scares aren’t scary, the humor isn’t nearly funny enough, and the entire third act is just plain weak.  What’s odd is that jokes that worked in the film’s trailer do not work in the finished film, leading me to believe the editor of this film has no idea how to cut a film to make a joke work, but the marketing department at Universal does. The editor was a man named John Axelrad, who has previously edited one other horror/comedy, James Gunn’s “Slither”, and for some reason his work completely kills two jokes that work in the trailer.  One wonders if the original cut of this film was more humorous and if the studio tinkered to try to play up the horror, thus resulting in some jokes dying or being smothered in the editing room.  In any event, the film doesn’t make you laugh enough, and it’s unlikely anyone over the age of 13 will be scared by the film.  Where the film works is in the design of the creatures and the generally visual look of the film.  Krampus himself is not merely the Bahomet–like goat creature we’re expecting, but a genuinely unnerving spin on Santa Clause with desiccated goat-like features.  His “elves”, which the film calls his main helpers, look like pagan cultists that would not look out of place in either a Stanley Kubrick film or a “Lords of Salem” sequel.  We also get some of the coolest demonic toys since, well, “Demonic Toys” or “Puppetmaster”, and some CGI gingerbread men that recall the one from “Shrek” if he were cloned and went homicidal.  We are also treated to a world  that looks so damn covered in snow and ice that it resembles a snowish apocalyptic hellscape, and I challenge you not to feel freezing as you watch the film, even if your theater is sufficiently heated.  Oh, and we also get a Henry Sellick-esque stop motion-looking animated flashback that spruces up the proceedings.

The plot is fairly simple. Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) is a little boy who has a bit more Christmas spirit than most. I must pause for a moment to mention that the name “Max Engel” is a little too close to Marx & Engels to be accidental, but since the film has very little political commentary it seems like a throwaway name with no purpose.  In any case, Max is beginning to lost his Christmas spirit because his parents (Adam Scott, who has horror/comedy experience with “Piranha 3D”; and Toni Collette, who was in the “Fright Night” remake but otherwise her appearance in this film is odd), while still loving each other, are growing distant because of whatever job the dad has (the film only tells us it involves frequent traveling).  Max also has an older sister (Stefania LaVie Owen), but their distance feels like normal older sister-younger brother distance.  Max is also close with his old, German grandmother (Krista Sadler), who only speaks German except, lazily, when the film requires her to give lengthy exposition and can’t figure out how to do this without making her speak English, yet the film still insists she only speak German at every other time.  That should have been handled in an early script draft before filming began.

The real conflict comes when the mom’s sister and her family arrive.  They are right-wing, gun-loving folks who arrive in a Hummer and don’t believe in global warming.  They burp at the dinner table, wear camo, and are a parody of obnoxious right-wing relatives so on-the-nose that even my Marxist-Atheist self thought it was a little much.  Their patriarch is played with gusto by David Koechner, and the family is mostly defined by the two daughters who look and act like boys (the film implies because the dad wanted boys), a son who never talks, and an alcoholic aunt.  After the tomboys tease Max about a letter he’s written to Santa, Max rips up the letter and, well, a huge blizzard comes into town knocking out power and cell phone reception, the town seems to empty out, and out family is seemingly untouched because German grandma is keeping the fireplace lit.


Given the title, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Max’s loss of Christmas spirit leads to Krampus, an old, pagan, evil Santa of seemingly Germanic origin, to set upon this family to punish them for their lack of Christmas spirit.  Except, that’s not really the case.  The characters in this film don’t have a problem with the holiday of Christmas.  The characters have a problem with their family, and that’s what the film is really about.  This isn’t a losing faith in a holiday movie, even if it tries to tell us that.  This movie is really about how we all hate out families, but we need to put up with them. Why? Well, Max specifically asks his dad that question, and his dad has no answer.  Despite that, the film shows us that if we don’t agree to put up with our family’s crap, we’ll be stuck in Hell with them for all of eternity. O…kay.  I’m sorry, movie, but as someone who has cut ties with shitty members of his family that he doesn’t like, and knows others who have cut ties with families that are not just rude and obnoxious but downright abusive, that the message of “play nice or you deserve to be killed” is a pretty shitty message, and trying to obfuscate that message by hiding behind a holiday doesn’t change the message.  This movie has almost nothing to do with X-Mas and everything to do with the concept of family.


This film presents us with two different families.  There is Max’s, which is vaguely upper middle class and affluent, with Liberal sensibilities and effete tastes.  Then there is the in-law family of camo, wrestling, hunting, shooting, gas-guzzling, burping, drinking, bullying, and the like.  If one were to look for the implicit political message to this film, and I’m not saying one was intentional, it’s a warning that both sides of the cultural divide, Blue States and Red States, coasts and fly-over country, need to bury the hatchet or we’ll all die, possibly in a weather induced apocalypse (climate change?)  I generally have an issue with this King Solomon reasoning of both sides having flaws and needing to go to the center and play friends.  Sometimes, one side is a lot more right on things and one side is a lot more wrong.  Even in this film, the in-laws have almost no positive merits to show for them, except maybe respect for protection of one’s family unit, and the main family are just not as close as they could ideally be.  The film is clearly on the side of the Liberals and their crème brulee, but it perhaps wishes that Liberals had the closeness of family that Conservatives are generally thought to have. Conversely, the film maybe wishes Conservatives had more class and refinement.  Still, taking this message outside of being about two families and brought to the real like and politics, it’s pretty hard to bury the hatchet with crazy and malevolent persons. Imagine a film that argued that if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can’t find common ground than all of humankind is doomed for eternity. That would seem like an unfair and pretty fucked up deal, especially when one man has really good ideas, albeit “radical” for the reactionary feelings of the average American, and one man is a bourgeois fascist and complete idiotic scum.


Still, none of this would matter if the film were funny, or scary, or at least inventive in the way it spins X-Mas on its head, but the film simply isn’t enough of those things.  The third act, where the film gets lazy and just kind of pulls characters into the ground with no logic because it’s run out of ways to dispatch with characters in a PG-13 friendly way, is groan inducing and disappointing in a huge way.  The likable actors and the interesting eye candy can only take you so far. One imagines the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the blu-ray showing the creatures being created and how they were made to perform on set will be cooler and more entertaining than the actual film.


This film could have been so much better than it is.  They could have punched up and focused on humor and made this “Gremlins” or “Phantasm”, or even R-rated and went “Evil Dead” with it.  It could have been more inventive with how it turned X-Mas tropes and iconography on their head, or even gone even more pagan in its visuals.  This film just feels like missed opportunities all the way through. Perhaps an R rated and being made outside of the studio system would have helped.  The film often feels like a late 80s direct-to-video influence infuses it (think “Tremors”), and perhaps this is one of the few horror films that would have played better as an indie VOD release instead of a major studio December release.


“Krampus” isn’t a bad film, but it’s a terribly, terribly disappointing one because of the good that’s in it. It wastes a terrific cast, the concept of Krampus, and interesting visuals and character designs on a really weak script.  Dougherty has some bad scripts to his name (“Superman Returns” and “Urban Legends: Bloody Mary”) but this film also had two other writers: Todd Casey (whose only writing prior to this film seems to be Superhero cartoon movies and TV shows) and Zach Shields (no other real writing credits to speak of).  THREE writers and this was the best they could do? C+


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